Summer day care: a growing concern

It's the middle of a summer weekday - do you know where your children are? For working parents with tiny tots, the answer is probably the same as on a winter's day: at the sitter's or the day-care center. But for those with school-age children the typical answer in summer, until recently, has been rather bleak: at home, alone.

''We're at the very beginning of the forming of a wave of custodial care,'' says Adah Strobell, associate professor of recreation at the University of Maryland. Recreation centers, YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers, Girls and Boys Clubs, and other areas where children traditionally ''dropped in'' during summer hours are finding kids waiting at the doorstep for them to open, directors say - and are changing their hours to accommodate those kids.

''The staff gets here at 8:30,'' says Barbara Fierro, executive director of the Girl's Club of Rapid City, S.D., ''and kids would be out there, rapping on the window and asking to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. We had to do something.''

As recreation directors are becoming more aware of the need for full-day care for the school-age child, so, too, are parents. ''People are becoming more aware of the need to provide safe care,'' says Ms. Fierro, ''with all the talk now about kidnapped children and child abuse.'' Her Girl's Club now offers custodial care during extended hours to 75 children each summer on a fee basis. ''Still, in a city with 6,000 school-age children, at least half of whom have working parents, you can see we're a long way from meeting the need.''

In Miami, a highly successful YMCA program meets the needs of over 1,000 such children. Edward Ellis, president of Miami's ''Y,'' says he thinks the program is soaking up the bulk of the latchkey kids in the area by making the program very accessible. ''The school system runs an excellent summer school program, and we moved our program right into several of these schools, so the kids don't have to go anywhere,'' he says.

Other centers are located in key areas of the city, on the commuting routes of many working parents.

Cost is one factor that often makes such programs inaccessible to these children. The Miami ''Y'' gathers scholarships from the United Way program and others to reduce their $15 per week price tag - already on the low end of the scale - to $7.50 in the poorer areas.

They also pay special attention to the needs of different age groups, like the sixth-graders scheduled to go on to junior high next year. Groups of these children from the different ''feeder schools'' are formed into clubs by the YMCA and spend a few days during the summer swimming, hiking, and having fun together. ''So when they go to school in the fall, they'll walk in with a friend from another school,'' says Mr. Ellis.

Directors of successful summer programs often comment that such programs need to support the family - not just the child. The Miami ''Y'' asks for feedback from parents regularly and puts parents and children on planning committees. Other programs - notably military base recreation centers - hold monthly barbecue talent shows or other family-oriented evening meetings so parents can get to know one another.

Ms. Fierro talks about another way these centers support parents: ''A lot of these children are from divorced homes, and they come here during the summer to visit their fathers. The staff finds these fathers coming up to them and saying, 'My daughter's started doing such and such, is that normal? What do I do about it?' ''

At that particular Girl's Club, they found that 83 percent of the children in the traditional program came from alcoholic families. ''So we looked into the needs of children growing up in an alcoholic environment and are starting to do a lot of intervention in families. We help the child learn that they have choices, that they don't have to get in a car with a drunk driver, even if it's their parent,'' she says.

A program director from an impoverished area at the tip of Appalachia where there are ''no playgrounds, no day care, no nothing,'' reports on another kind of intervention. Although his program is free and reasonably accessible (''we're in the middle of the poorest section of town''), he has trouble getting parents to send ''their six- or seven-year-old, because they say he has to stay home and take care of the four- or five-year-old. So we sneak some four-year-olds in - we're not supposed to take them under five, but what can you do?''

But the bulk of parents, most program directors report, want very much to provide adequate supervision for their children and are struggling to find slots open in day camps and recreation centers. Others, says Dorothy Rich of the Home & School Institute in Washington, D.C., are improvising solutions: ''Finding a senior citizen on the block the children can go to as a safe house, or chipping in together to hire a sitter, or pressing the school system to put these school buses to work getting the kids to centers and day camp.'' Other parents balance days home alone with weeks of day camp or residential camp, and spend time teaching their younger teens how to use the public transportation system.

In an era of tightening government monies, says Dr. Rich, ''Don't underestimate the worth of the individual solution.''

Still, one part of the government - the US military - may be in the forefront of summer custodial care. Many base directors are realizing that ''parents whose children are home alone all day tend to be less productive because they worry about their kids,'' says Dr. Strobell, who consults on recreation programming with the United States Navy. The military also found that ''many of their personnel grew up in military families on bases, so it's in the military's best interest to provide opportunities for the future generation to get socialized and develop leadership,'' she says.

Many bases reacted by establishing cost-effective custodial care on base, both after school and during the summer. ''These are not taxpayers' dollars,'' says one spokesman.

Still, most children of working parents, once they leave the day-care center, are spending their summers at home, alone, ''watching the boob tube,'' Dr. Strobell says. ''We're just starting to wake up to this need.''

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